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What can U.S. ‘strategic dialogues’ bring to the Maghreb?

United States Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced the launch of a U.S.-Tunisia “strategic dialogue” next April. This third “dialogue” of its kind with a Maghreb country illustrates the growing U.S. attention to the region. But what can it bring?

Strategic dialogues reflect an enhanced relationship.

Ellen Laipson, president of the Washington-based Stimson Center, told Al Arabiya News, the purpose of such dialogues is “to elevate a relationship beyond the purely bilateral” and give cooperation a “broader geographic basis.” As they look at “the long term,” these dialogues “are meant to show a commitment and an expectation that this relationship has value to both parties over time.”

Recently launched in the Maghreb, strategic dialogues have been going on for a while, with China, India, Pakistan, Brazil, South Africa and others. Such “dialogues” can guarantee high level U.S. attention to the Maghreb, a region often complaining of “benign neglect” by Washington.

After the inaugural sessions of U.S. “strategic dialogues” with Morocco and Algeria held in 2012, second rounds were scheduled for last November. They were however postponed as John Kerry headed instead to Geneva for nuclear talks with Iran. New dates are expected soon.

U.S.-Maghreb expert Mark Habeeb told Al Arabiya News that with “strategic dialogues,” the U.S. and their north African interlocutors “can make sure their policies are in are in sync, especially on important national security issues, such as terrorism, but also in the areas of trade and commerce.”

Over time, dialogues can evolve into “strategic partnerships,” although Morocco has already had elements of such a partnership, including a Free Trade Agreement, designation as a major non-NATO ally, and a “Millennium Challenge Corporation” compact.

Regional security

Considering new environments brought about by the 2011 uprisings in north Africa, it is no coincidence that one of the foremost issues in these dialogues is regional security. Post-revolutionary turmoil and the ensuing porosity of borders facilitated the flow of weapons and fighters from Libya; and elicited terrorist flashpoints in Algeria and Tunisia.

Attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Benghazi and Tunis, in September 2012, particularly brought new security risks to US attention.

Considering new environments brought about by the 2011 uprisings in north Africa, it is no coincidence that one of the foremost issues in these dialogues is regional security. Post-revolutionary turmoil and the ensuing porosity of borders facilitated the flow of weapons and fighters from Libya; and elicited terrorist flashpoints in Algeria and Tunisia.

Oussama Romdhani

Security challenges in the Maghreb are likely to be examined against a geographic setting mostly defined by the footprints of home-grown jihadists. “The Maghreb is part of the Middle East, but it is also part of Africa. Trends in the Maghreb affect the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, and dynamics to the south affect the Maghreb,” noted the Washington-based Center for International and Strategic Studies in a document published last year.

There are large stakes for both the U.S. and the Maghreb in security-based dialogues. Algeria, which boasts the largest army and the most experienced counter terrorism program in Africa, has actively collaborated with the U.S. on terrorism issues since Sept. 11, 2001.

Long engaged in an existential struggle against al Qaeda, it continues to face security challenges at home and in the region. A terrorist attack at the In Amenas gas plant killed 39 foreign workers. In its southern backyard, it had to keep pace with the French military campaign against extremist factions in northern Mali.

On the eastern borders, it continues to monitor any overflows from the uncertain situation Libya and lend support to Tunisia as it combats terrorist activities. Richard Schmierer, a senior State Department official told the Senate last November that the U.S. has “ encouraged Algeria to continue to expand its regional leadership role to help stabilize neighboring states, which struggle to address terrorist threats, loose weapons, and porous borders.”

The U.S. has praised the results produced by Tunisia’s anti-terrorism efforts since the appointment of a new technocratic government last month. But international cooperation remains a logical postulate of the “war on terror” for Tunisia or Morocco, which have been actively contributing to de-radicalization efforts in Mali and West Africa.

Economic ties

Despite traditionally close relations with the EU, Maghreb countries are also seeking expansion of economic ties with the United States. Diversification of trade and business partnerships makes sense for Morocco and Tunisia at a time of a European economic slowdown. In view of the difficulties of its transition, Tunisia might be in pressing need for the materialization of a broader strategy for success, something recently mentioned by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Asked about prospects of additional support to Tunisia beyond the $400 million allocated since 2011, a senior administration official recently told reporters, “I think Congress, like the administration, has taken note of the positive developments and will want to support them.”

Economic objectives are likely to be different for Algeria. In any dialogue, its position will be bolstered by already-substantial business and trade interests with the United States. The annual trade volume of $18bn a year and recent $2.7 billion deal with General Electric illustrate Algeria’s strong posture.

Can dialogues encompass trans-Maghreb considerations beyond immediate security concerns? “You can get more attention from Washington if there are joint efforts or willingness to do things on a regional level,” thinks Ellen Laipson.

But agreeing on a pan-Maghreb vision and overcoming such obstacles as the decade-old Western Sahara dispute will anticipate the launch of a real strategic dialogue among Maghreb nations themselves.
 

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Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst. Official blog page: www.oussama-romdhani.com

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Last Update: Wednesday, 5 March 2014 KSA 10:03 - GMT 07:03
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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What can U.S. ‘strategic dialogues’ bring to the Maghreb?
Over time, dialogues can evolve into strategic partnerships although Morocco has already had elements of such a partnership, including a Free Trade Agreement
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